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Ted Morton says everybody does it? Well, stand up straight Alberta, and listen to your mother!

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Alberta Tory leadership candidate Ted Morton

It's been a few hours now since a CBC investigative reporter revealed that front-running Conservative leadership candidate Ted Morton used a fake name on a real government email address to evade Freedom of Information searches and had government documents pertaining to his ministry shredded when he left office.

As a result, we now know the details of Morton's brazen defence of his outrageous behaviour: Everybody does it.

Now, I don't know about your mom, or Morton's mom down there in Wyoming, but my mom told me that just because everybody else did something didn't make it right. More than once she also advised me that just because everyone else was doing something didn't mean that I was going to get to do it any time soon.

My mom's no longer with us, but her advice remains pretty sound, I think. Ted Morton should have paid attention. I can tell you that Mom used to vote Conservative, but I'm pretty darned sure she wouldn't vote for Morton.

Morton's 'covert email'

OK, let's rewind for those of you who haven't been following this story all day long.

Early yesterday morning, CBC investigative reporter Charles Rusnell broke a story that said Morton, a neo-Con intellectual, sometime "Senator in Waiting" and former minister of finance and of sustainable resource development in Premier Ed Stelmach's cabinet, "used a covert email for his internal communications while he was a government minister to evade potential public scrutiny."

As part of his leadership campaign, Morton makes a big deal of calling for transparency in government.

"Emails leaked to CBC News show Morton used the name Frederick Lee -- his actual first and middle names -- as an official government email address while he was minister of Sustainable Resource Development (SRD)," Rusnell wrote on the CBC's website.

Morton used his official Freddy Lee email account to discuss the extremely controversial details of his land-use legislation, which has caused a brouhaha in rural Alberta and has been a major rallying point for the far-right Wildrose Alliance, allowing that party's supporters to describe themselves as defenders of "property rights."

When Morton left the cabinet, Rusnell also quoted a government official saying, "our office staff shredded all our documents when Dr. Morton resigned from cabinet." The documents shredded included the Freddy Lee emails.

Shredding documents of historical or forensic value is not a government employee's decision to make -- unless, as it turns out, the minister in question is a neo-Con ideologue to whom the rules don't apply.

Morton's everybody-does-it defence

OK, that was the situation by early afternoon, when Morton was scheduled to show up at an Editorial Board meeting of the Edmonton Journal.

Morton's instinct, obviously, was to bob and weave. He snuck in and out of a back door at last Thursday's leadership forum in Red Deer to avoid the famously dogged Rusnell, who was waiting outside with a cameraman and a long list of questions (no doubt prepared well in advance and in the right order to aid the preparation of his story).

With no opportunity to gracefully wiggle out of the editorial board meeting, Morton chose to try to blow his behaviour off as standard operating procedure. "'I know it's common practice (federally), not just for cabinet ministers, but for MPs' to have more than one email account, one public and one internal, and then perhaps an additional internal one," the Journal live-blogged during the meeting.

This in fact is true. The difference is, of course, that they're both in the same name. Even Jack Layton had a private email account -- in the name of Jack Layton, of course, not "Freddy Lee Layton" or its equivalent

"Anybody's who's the head of a public or private corporation follows the same type of practice," the Journal quoted Morton as saying. "There's a public email, and one or two internal ones."

So there you have it, the first pillar of his defence: Everybody does it.

"If I was trying to avoid FOIPP, I wouldn't have used my own name," he told the Journal, conveniently forgetting that he used a version of his own name that he knew no one would know. "Morton says he believes the archived emails would be maintained by a systems operator" -- well, you can believe that if you wish, I guess.

In Alberta we shoot, shovel and shut up

The probability seems high that documents and emails were destroyed illegally, but we'll have to wait for a planned investigation by Alberta's outgoing Information and Privacy Commissioner, Frank Work, which was reported yesterday evening by the Globe and Mail.

No one seems to know right now what the Alberta government's rules are for this sort of thing. Here's a link to the B.C. government's approach, under which Morton would not have been allowed to destroy all his mail.

The good news is that Work can be as dogged and independent as Rusnell. The bad news is that even fast-tracked, there's no way the investigation can be completed in time for the Tory leadership first ballot, a week Saturday on Sept. 17.

And while this is not exactly said in Morton's defence, Alberta government insiders have known that since Ralph Klein was premier the destruction of public records has in fact become a practice that is not unknown in this government.

As Klein himself described his philosophy during the Mad Cow Disease crisis in 2003, "any self-respecting rancher would have shot, shovelled and shut up." This kind of thinking means that when future historians come to study the Klein, Stelmach and -- God help us! -- the Morton years, there will be huge holes in the story.

The interesting question now is whether this will affect Morton's candidacy. It's simply hard to predict if this will be enough to move right-wing Albertans back to the Wildrose Alliance, or toward support for untainted Tory candidates like Rick Orman and Doug Griffiths who are also on the right side of the political spectrum.

One of Morton's strengths -- a reason he's thought to have moved back into the front-runner position in recent weeks -- has been his assiduous work over the summer with conservative evangelical Christians. One would think, surely, that people espousing such a doctrine would be troubled by this kind of conduct!

Everybody does it? That excuse just won't cut it if Albertans are listening to their mamas!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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